The trumpets will be sounding on the other side for Charles W. Colson—not only for what he achieved as a Christian leader but for how much his character changed. His life story is one of the outstanding and best known examples in modern times of the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
Colson's early career in secular politics was successful. It led him to the White House as a senior presidential aide but ended in spectacular failure during Watergate. In those dark days he was the most vilified figure in Washington after Richard Nixon. Some of the obloquy heaped upon Colson was undeserved: for example it is a journalistic myth that he attempted to order the bombing of the Brookings Institute. But in the role he gleefully relished as "Nixon's hatchet man" he connived in many dirty tricks.
When the scandal broke, the press and the prosecutors had Colson in their sights. They knew he was a major contributor to the unsavory moral climate inside the White House. He first hit the headlines in 1972 when he wrote an internal memo with the line "I would walk over my Grandmother for Richard Nixon." That symbolized his end-justifies-the-means ruthlessness as a political operator. It was no surprise that he became a prime suspect for being the architect of Watergate.
As he was later to admit, Colson had no moral compass for the first 41 years of his life. In that period he occasionally described himself as "a nominal Episcopalian." This was a considerable stretch of the word nominal. He was so unchurched that he had no idea who the Good Samaritan or the Prodigal Son were. The only recorded example of a conversation about faith during his political career ended with Colson telling his first Christian interlocutor Fred Rhodes, "Oh, I think religion is fine, provided one has as little of it as possible."
A Conversion Greeted With Cynicism
The turning point towards the search for spiritual meaning in Colson's life came soon after he had left the White House under a cloud and was attempting to rebuild his career as a lawyer. He called on Tom Phillips, the chief executive of Raytheon who had recently come to the Lord at a Billy Graham rally. Colson was hoping to land some of Raytheon's legal business. Instead Phillips talked with passion about his newfound faith and read aloud some passages from Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis.
Colson first thought his host's religious views were "pure Pollyanna." But the reading from the chapter on pride in Lewis's book ("The Great Sin") struck home. So did the prayer Tom Phillips said at the end of the evening, asking Jesus Christ "to open Chuck's heart and show him the light and the way." Later that night, Colson broke down in tears at the wheel of his car and offered a prayer of his own. As he climbed into bed, he told his wife, Patty, that he thought he'd had a conversion experience—but he did not know what the term meant.
At the instigation of Tom Phillips, Colson was mentored by Doug Coe, an unorthodox but effective Washington pastor. He ran the National Prayer Breakfast and led The Fellowship, a ministry to influential movers and shakers. Few of them wanted to have anything to do with Colson. Nevertheless, Coe twisted some arms and formed a prayer group to support the Watergate sinner. These prayerful brothers became Colson's lifeline of spiritual support (they included liberal Democratic Sen. Harold Hughes, the nine-term Republican Congressman Al Quie from Minnesota, and a former Democratic Congressman from Texas, Graham Purcell). Under Coe's leadership, their theology was fuzzy but their love was great. Although the word Christian was not allowed to be mentioned, the brothers lived out Jesus' commandment "Love thy neighbor" with exemplary commitment. Colson was a mixed up soul in torment at the time, but his new brothers sustained him as he began his journey from self-centeredness and self-justification to Christ-centeredness and justification by faith.